‘The Visit’

199510R1Whilst far from his best (The Sixth Sense is something of a classically unnerving and clever thriller), M. Night Shyamalan’s comedy horror The Visit certainly has its moments.

The concept is part of the fun – two young teenage kids visit their grandparents they have never met on a remote farm. Odd behaviour follows. And though it’ll hardly scare the living daylights out of you, it’s an enjoyable and occasionally very funny journey.

The two young leads (Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould) are a delight – and, surprisingly for an American film, both Australian.

Rating: 51%

‘Mister Pip’ by Lloyd Jones

9781921520242The value of stories and storytelling is the core of New Zealand author Lloyd Jones’ award-winning novel, Mister Pip. Charles Dickens and Great Expectations has enormous impact on the life of a young Matilda growing up in Papua New Guinea: her impromptu teacher Mr Watts, like Scheherazade in 1001 Arabian Nights, spins tales to save lives. There’s also more than a nod in the direction of Biblical stories as well as traditional island folklore.

The outbreak of civil war on the small tropical island of Bougainville has left the young Matilda and Dolores, her God-fearing mother, stranded in their isolated coastal village. With her father working overseas and most of the young men joining the rebel army, Matilda and the remaining villagers find themselves at the mercy of fate.

Living among them is the eccentric Mr Watts, the only white person, and his wife, the crazed Grace, native of the village. As the deprivations of the civil war bite deep, so Mr Watts becomes the self-appointed teacher to the village. But there is only one book – Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. The children are transported to nineteenth century Victorian London and an alien language as Watts reads aloud the novel and struggles to explain ‘frost’ and ‘rimy morning’ to the islanders.

Rumours and stories of the fighting reach the villagers, yet their daily lives are not unduly interrupted. Many of the children become transfixed by the fate of the orphan boy Pip and his benefactor Abel Magwitch. But Dolores becomes deeply suspicious of the non-Christian teachings and beliefs of Watts. She sets in motion a chain of events that have devastating consequences for the whole village as rebels followed by government forces followed by the return of the rebels kill, rape and maim.

Years later, now a Dickens scholar, Matilda visits New Zealand to explore the earlier life of her teacher and mentor. There she discovers the extent Watts had fictionalised his life story in its telling to the rebel soldiers and how two fictions – his own and that of Charles Dickens – were deeply intertwined.

Mister Pip received rapturous critical acclaim on its initial publication in 2006, referred to as “magical”, “poignant” and “haunting”. It collected the overall Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for 2007 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize (it lost out to Anne Enright and The Gathering).

In its remarkably short 220 pages, the award-winning novel is broad in scope, deeply symbolic yet deceptively simplistic. Scenes on the island and the fear of the civil war are powerful and compelling. Yet, towards the end, Mister Pip loses its way, as Matilda, having survived the civil war, has become an academic scholar living in a bedsit in London. The warmth and honesty is strangely missing from a novel that throughout has been full of charm (if occasionally erring on the patronising side).

‘Sicario’

sicario_ver8_xlgLike a scene in the film, Sicario grabs you by the throat very early on, leaving you gasping for breath. It’s a mesmerising experience – tense yet perversely calm. Anything could happen – and sometimes it does, sometimes not (I challenge you to watch the young Mexican boy roll an orange across the kitchen table, backwards and forwards, and NOT expect something to happen!)

FBI agent Emily Blunt (Edge of Tomorrow, The Devil Wears Prada) is extraordinary – at once confident and vulnerable, dealing with the alpha male CIA-goon squad chasing the Mexican drugs cartel. Yet the film belongs to the strangely menacing Benicio Del Toro (Traffic, Che) – and cinematographer Roger Deakins (Skyfall, No Country For Old Men).

Rating: 89%

‘Far From Men’

FarFromMen_onesheet_web_smAlgeria 1954 and the fight for independence from France is the background. But this is an adaptation of the Camus short story The Guest – cultural dislocation, existentialism and the moral imperative is the true concern.

Viggo Mortensen (Lord of the Rings trilogy, The History of Violence) is compelling as Daru, a man confronted with, for him, a no-win situation. The only teacher in a remote school in the rugged mountain terrain of the Atlas Mountains, he is forced to deliver a local man, charged with murder, to the garrison in a nearby town. Whatever his actions, Daru will never be able to return to his previous life.

A stunning soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis complements the mens’ journey and accompanying complex moral dilemmas.

Rating: 81% 

‘Everest’

EVEREST-Action-PosterI wish I could say that Baltasar Kormakur (101 Reykjavik, Contraband) had created a thrilling, humane spectacle. Sadly, I cannot.

It’s the templated disaster movie a.k.a The Towering Inferno and Airport. Spend the first half of the film introducing the main players (and it’s quite some cast – Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, Emily Watson, Keira Knightley et al) followed by the edge-of-the-seat thrills as the group battle the storm to get down from the Everest peak.

But like those earlier 1970s features, it just does not work. The characters are so thinly sketched they are only moderately engaging. And by the time disaster hits, it’s somewhat underwhelming and uninvolving. The result is an ultimately dull film.

Rating: 40%

‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’

me-and-earl-and-the-dying-girl-posterTerrible title to attract an audience – a pity as this is moving, gentle and poignant without being mawkish or melodramatic.

There’s a real indie freshness to this breakout feature by director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (who cut his skills working with the likes of Martin Scoresese, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Ben Affleck). The offbeat charm of Thomas Mann (Project X, Beautiful Creatures) – the ‘Me’ of the title – is beautifully complemented by the vulnerable Olivia Cooke (Ouija, The Signal). A sincere charmer of a film.

The Grand Jury Prize-winner at Sundance 2015, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl also picked up the Audience Award at the Sydney Film Festival.

Rating: 74%

‘She’s Funny That Way’

Shes_Funny_That_Way_posterFarce is not usually my schtick but veteran director Peter Bogdanovich’s (The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc?) latest is, at times, very funny.

Like all farces, the action (and dialogue) is fast, the locations limited (a theatre, a hotel, a restaurant) and the characters move on and off screen as if in a series of revolving doors. It’s hardly original but with an appealing central performance by Imogen Poots (Filth, V For Vendetta) and more than ably supported by the likes of Owen Wilson, an extremely funny Jennifer Aniston, Rhys Ifans and Kathryn Hahn, She’s Funny That Way is screwball comedy firmly referencing the 30s Hollywood of Frank Capra, Preston Sturges and Ernst Lubitsch.

Rating: 62%

‘Southpaw’

southpaw-poster-galleryA testosterone-fuelled entertainment, Southpaw leaves you emotionally pummelled with Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko, End of Watch) formidable in this pugilist tale of redemption.

Unsurprising it may be in its telling and events in the boxing ring are true, bloody and battered. But the incredibly physical, strutting Gyllenhaal is magnetic (and hardly off the screen for the film’s two hour duration) and the final scenes are truly breathtaking.

Rating: 79%

‘Life’

20289458968_3935c4d72a_oFlat, emotionless, sexless. No sign whatsoever of the moody James Dean’s appeal that captured photographer Dennis Stock’s belief in him as a future star. (The film is set in the weeks leading up to the premiere of East of Eden in 1955.)

Dane DeHaan (The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Kill Your Darlings) struggles and is unconvincing in playing one of the most iconic figures of a generation – and Robert Pattinson (Twilight, Water For Elephants) is only marginally better as the somewhat straight laced Stock.

A huge missed opportunity and major disappointment from director Anton Corbijn, responsible for the standout bio of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, Control.

Rating: 39%

‘Every Man For Himself’ by Beryl Bainbridge

$_35The tragic sinking of the luxury liner, the so-called invincible RMS Titanic, on its maiden voyage in April 1912 with the loss of 1500 lives has long held a morbid fascination. Some 35 feature and 18 television films are listed on IMDb and the most successful film in history, the 3-hour Titanic directed by James Cameron in 1997, pits the steerage passenger Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) against the indulgent superiority of the upper classes on the upper decks.

Beryl Bainbridge’s novel was released only a few months before Cameron’s epic. Yet this surprisingly slight work is no attempt to overly detail the unfolding of events of the ship’s departure from Southampton with much pomp to its sinking just four days later. Instead, Bainbridge focuses on one first-class passenger, the young Morgan, as her narrator and commentator.

An orphan reared by his aunt, he is the 21 year-old nephew of one of America’s richest men and Titanic financier, J P Morgan. It’s first class travel for him all the way – yet a life of privilege was not always Morgan’s destiny. An outcast from the family, his mother died when he was just two years old. Dumped in an orphanage in England, it was a few years before Morgan was found by his extended, wealthy, family.

An indulged lifestyle yet a relatively aware social conscience (albeit idealistic) due to Morgan’s early years provides Bainbridge with a cynical voice in the hallowed salons of the upper decks of the luxurious ‘floating palace’ of the cruise liner. Morgan readily fits into his first class surrounds, but he’s not averse to commenting on the intrigues and gossip of a vacuous people who seem to travel to the same places, attend the same schools, share the same social lives.

Socialite Lady Duff Gordon, ship designer Thomas Andrews, CEO of the White Star Line Bruce Ismay are real-life characters who populate the decks with the fictional Morgan and his friends and cronies. But the known tragic outcome overshadows everything – only the question of who survives remains.

Bainbridge does not dwell on the sinking nor provide in depth details. The tragedy occupies only the final third of the book and is therefore no derring-do. Nor is it a Leonardo DiCaprio/Kate Winslet romance. Every Man For Himself is a negotiation of half-seen, half-understood complex relationships of first-class passengers in a world that was to change just two years later with the outbreak of the First World War. It’s beautifully and sparely written, occasionally funny – and very judgemental.

It’s not my favourite Beryl Bainbridge novel, but Every Man For Himself was shortlisted for the 1996 Booker Prize (her fourth shortlist) along with Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace but lost out to Graham Swift and Last Orders.